Shanghai residents, despair: The British Kitchen has closed!
SmSh met up with owner James Stockdale last week to have him offer us edible solace by way of an incredibly easy to make Earl Gray Dark Chocolate Tart. It requires no oven and only six ingredients! In between the tears and gingerbread (the tart was still resting in the fridge), I spoke to James about his experience running a food business in China and why he’s closing it down.
Cheerio, British Kitchen. The city is less delicious in your absence.
SmSh: Thinking of your career and business cycle — because I think it’s really interesting how you went from full-time work, and then doing British Kitchen part-time, and then full-time British Kitchen, and now going back to full time work — do you think that Shanghai is a really good place to test something out? Do you find that there is a type of security in Shanghai, like you could try something out and then go back?
James Stockdale: Absolutely. I can’t speak for other cities in China, but in London, that would be pretty much impossible to do. In Shanghai I think there’s quite a fresh market, there’s a lot of young Chinese who are very interested in new products...very experimental...very wanting to engage with that kind of international scene, which I think is one of the strengths of somewhere like Jiashan Market, and why I sold there. You’ve got this huge mix of international foods for a very small market of 23 vendors, and so you get a lot of the young local crowd coming because they’re very curious.
Shanghai anyway was definitely a great place to test this in. Relatively risk free. And I think certainly if you really devote yourself to wanting to do something as best as you can, then you’re kind of set up… you can then be leading your field a little. Not to say that I’m leading my field! [He is.] But there’s that opportunity to get well-known for something because there’s no one else really doing that.
SmSh: The small food scene here is amazing and really supportive. How would you describe it and how it’s evolved since you’ve been here? What do you think are the best parts about running a food company in Shanghai?
JS:I think it’s actually all about people and the people you meet on the way. I’ve met some great people [Gives me a wink. Ok, there was no wink.] and really helpful people as well. Like it’s unbelievable how willing people are to pass on knowledge rather than trying to hold onto it as some sort of secretive asset. If you’ve got a question, just ask, and someone’s always going to have an answer to it. And going to Jiashan specifically... because it is like a family down there.
I know I’ll see David there, we’ll have a chat, and it’s like ‘hey David you want some cake? I’ll swap you a cake’ and I get a coffee. Or Pavlos takes a few brownies and gives me a burger, and you just trade, and that’s really nice.
SmSh: So then what do you think is the hardest part about running a small business in Shanghai?
JS: Language, really, for me. Like my Chinese is okay but it’s not anywhere near as good as it should be. And for that reason I had to rely on Ying [James’ girlfriend] a lot. And I feel guilty about that as well. That it’s something that’s her time. It’s not something I can do myself and I really like being independent, and being able to tackle every single part of everything that I can, but as soon as it’s put into a language that you can’t understand the details or specifics of, then you suddenly feel really useless in a way, and I find that so frustrating.
SmSh: …and not even just getting across what you need to get done but the emotion behind it. Being able to convey “this is really important!” without just saying that specifically in Chinese. Really being able to expand on things.
Js: Yeah and there are so many specific details in the baking. Like if I were to explain a recipe in Chinese, I would say "add the sugar add the cream, this temperature, this color, and wait." But explaining, "this should be swirling and there should be coloration around the edges," I don’t know how to say "swirl" in Chinese or "coloration around the edges"! So that part is really hard... If I was fluent in Chinese it would be so much easier.
And I think just the structure of businesses in China is tricky as well. If I was doing this back in the UK, I could essentially get a small working studio, the local health and safety authority comes in and they look around and say you need to do this this and this, you do that, they come back in again and check it a while later, say that’s great, carry on, and you’re done, just make sure your business is registered and you can be supplying online or cafes or any of those different things like that.
But here it’s either, if you want to supply other cafes, in a legally speaking world, you need to have a QS [A license that enables a vendor to supply goods to restaurants]. If you want to be selling to customers who are not cafes, just individual customers, you need to have a cafe, and that requires huge capital. I think in Shanghai you can operate below the radar, but only for so long, and your business grows to a point where you have to then make that decision. And I think that’s why I decided [to close] because I knew at some point in the future I would be leaving, and the next step for me would be for me to open a cafe, or go down a route of QS, both of which would require loads of money.
SmSh: …and just a big commitment to your business for the next X number of years.
JS: Exactly. And also... it is about making money. A lot of people don’t realize the importance of that — ‘It’s about feeding my passion! I love making cakes and the money doesn’t matter, if I continue this I’ll be so happy!’ — but actually no. A business needs money to survive and I’ve always been fairly clear-minded about that. That if it doesn’t make money, I’m not doing it. Every recipe I always did, I had a pricing matrix and if it didn’t make a certain profitability, then there’s no point in doing it.
And you just have to be ruthless about that. Customers will say "can you make this for me?" And it’s like "I’m sorry no, I’m not going to make any money out of that."
That’s another thing I would recommend to anyone wanting to start a small business, that it’s fine to say no. You should say no when it doesn’t work to your benefit. As an example, in one case I spoke to a cafe when they first opened and I sent them the price list and they said, "no, we want to pay this much" and I was like, "if I sell it to you for this, I make no money from this" and I’m not willing to compromise on cheaper ingredients.
As a customer, if I’m going into a cafe, and they’ve got an average brownie priced at 20 kuai — okay, I won’t have the brownie again. If they’ve got a fucking great brownie at 30 kuai, I’ll go back and have that brownie again. So in a way, the saving money doesn’t really help it long term, and that really bothers me that, okay it’s their choice if they want to be selling cheaper brownies or something but they don’t understand the value of having really great ingredients.
SmSh: Do you think that’s an issue specific to China, or everywhere?
JS: Everywhere… Most of the people I’ve spoken to have been pretty good when they understand that it’s a good product and the quality that goes into things as well, they’re very fine to pay that price for it because they know that the customers will buy it and come back for it again. I hate cheap-tasting cake. There’s nothing satisfying about it at all and it doesn’t stick in your memory.
[Quick interlude where I say I’m craving a brownie and James offers me gingerbread, suckaaas!!!!]
SmSh: So what’s the hardest part about closing the business?
JS: I feel guilty now! I get a certain sense of satisfaction... I don’t want to be big-headed, but I feel like I make good stuff.
SmSh: You make REALLY good stuff.
JS: …and I feel guilty now that I’m no longer going to be selling it, in a way. You spend a long time building relationships with either people at the markets or the clients, to a sense where you have a real mutual trust and it develops more than just being a business transaction of ‘you need this I’ll give you that and you give me money back’. You become friends with people. And to now no longer be behind the table at the markets... that’s really hard.
SmSh: What’s unique about your position now is that you have remarkable products and a very well known brand name. People who would definitely be interested in buying the company and continuing the British Kitchen…
JS: I did think about, do I want to sell the business?... and the name’s one thing. But I think the most important thing anyway is the knowledge of how to run the business and what you’re going to be selling, and so I could essentially sell it here in Shanghai and someone carries it on, but I think I always had a very specific vision of what I wanted to make, and the style of how I wanted it to be made, and what I wanted the business to look like. So I think to find someone who would fit that role, who would see exactly the same vision as I did, is not that likely. And I would rather the British Kitchen stop and be known as something that was good than continue on and fizzle into something that it didn’t start out as, in a way.
Even if I never start it up again, I feel happier at least I know that at least it stopped strong than fizzled out into nothing, in a way.
Click here for more on the Kitchen that was.